Collect Call

The sun beat down on the hotel patio. A glass door was cracked open. Inside a man in a pinstripe suit sat on the edge of the bed, holding a telephone to his ear. Mary watched him talk, his mouth barely moving as it pressed near the pink handset, his other hand holding a faded cord in a tight grip.

A tall glass of cherry soda sat on the grated table, long pearls of condensation slipping down the sides in the afternoon heat. Mary clutched the cool glass in an attempt to chill her sweating palms.

John’s shoes slapped against cement as he moved to grip the back of his chair. Mary glanced at him, noting the sweat on his brow, inspired by the late July weather. He removed his outer jacket and draped it over his chair.

“I can do better,” Mary said, so quickly that the words came out a little jumbled. “I—”

John raised a hand, cutting her off. He sat, squinting. “You haven’t touched your drink.”

“Seemed, uh, rude. When you’re not having anything.” She gave a weary smile.  “What, um. What did he say?”

“Boss isn’t happy.”

“I know that. It was an honest mistake.”

“A pricey one.”

Other guests at the motel were enjoying a cool swim in the pool. A girl screamed before there was a splash. It raised the hair on the back of Mary’s neck. Laughter followed a moment later.

“I can do better,” Mary repeated.

John rubbed his forehead. “He’s talking it over. Said he’ll give another call. Seeing what needs to be done.”

Sweat trickled down the back of her neck. “Yes, but I—”

“Have your soda.”

She took a sip. John rolled his eyes and yanked the glass from her grip. He downed half in one gulp before returning it to her open hands.

The phone rang inside, loud and sudden as a gunshot.

John headed back inside. “Stay here.”

Mary tried to read John’s body language as he picked the phone up, hand cupped around the end as if to protect his words from her. She concentrated on the phone; she could hear the ghost of it ringing.

Finally, John hung up. “Come inside. It’s hot.”

“What did he say?”

“Come inside,” John said. “Close the door and curtains.”

She hurried to do as he asked, standing in the middle of the room, where she fiddled with the glass, ice cubes clinking against one another. “Did you tell him I’m real sorry?”

“Take a seat.”

She perched on the edge of the second bed.

John said, “Someone will be by later to pick you up.”

“A second chance?”

“I’m under strict orders to keep you in this room.”

“R-Right.”

John leaned back on the bed. “Damn heat,” he muttered. He loosened his tie and laid with his hands on his stomach, closing his eyes. “Should only be a couple of hours before you get your answer. Relax while you can.”

“You think he’ll kill me?”

He didn’t answer.

Mary turned the glass around in her hands. Started thinking. About the glass. The chance to run. “I can do better.”

“Hmm?”

The glass shattered on the nightstand, soda fizzing underneath the phone, ice tumbling about the cord. John’s eyes flew open as he raised himself, too late.

Gripping the end of the glass, Mary turned the broken edge of it against him, plunging the sharp edges into the soft flesh of his neck. He gurgled, eyes bulging, and sunk his fingers into her shoulders, pulling her down.

They fell together, off the bed. John loomed over her, hands going for her neck as cherry soda spilled from his. She kneed him in the gut and struggled to push him off of her, panicked hands scratching at the ones around her neck. He squeezed and she choked before she managed to flip them, tearing herself away from his body. There was a wheezing noise as he reached for her, red soaking his body. He fell in on himself and lay still against the nightstand, soda bubbles fizzing as they spilled down the stand and onto his back, where they lay, still, together.


Was It Worth It?

It had been nearly four months since James Daley had won the lottery. Not a fortune, but a good chunk of change. Nearly $100,000.

His wife of more than twenty years had been thrilled and, for a couple of weeks, the money was like a shot of Viagra for both of them. Their passion was a welcome change from the usual coldness that had settled in their bedroom.

But Tasha had become impatient about the money. They argued. She wanted to spend it on jewelry and vacations and cars and he didn’t. He was happy to have it, but was pleased to find that they didn’t actually need it. It could sit in the bank. Didn’t they both have everything they needed?, he’d asked.

Now, he sat in an alley in his 10-year-old Lincoln, watching his curvy wife pick her way down the rickety back steps of a faded three-flat building. He’d known what he would find, but still, the sight of it caused a surge in his chest so powerful that he feared it might be a heart attack.

There was a time when he could have been the younger stronger man whose bed his wife had just left. Hell, he’d grown up in this same raggedy neighborhood, without a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of.

He’d dropped out of school as soon as he could—never had the head for it— though he’d earned his GED in a program at the youth center. He’d met Tasha in his twenties while he was working a manual labor job at a small metal processing plant six blocks from his studio apartment. It was hot hard work, the pay was bad, and the company was barely staying afloat.

But they’d married and he’d  stuck it out at the job for years, though he felt the toll on his body more and more. The work was a young man’s game and he was breaking. Then the owners were bought out by a big company. A unionized one. Suddenly he had a pay raise, time off, and seniority. The kind of seniority that let him supervise others doing the backbreaking labor that he had done for so long.

Tasha quickly got used to their new life. They bought a house. They hosted parties and barbecues, sometimes inviting his crew of young subordinates over. They bought new cars. And they could pay for it all, even if just barely. Recently, one of the young guys, Rick, had become a fixture at the house. He admired James, he said, kept telling him what a lucky man he was. Such a pretty house.

Such a pretty wife.

It was why James recognized this building. He’d given Rick a ride home many times.

And now this.

On the drive home, James wondered if Rick and Tasha had been doing more than just bumping uglies, that maybe they were planning to get rid of him, but decided that it didn’t matter. He took a chance and turned down a familiar block that he hadn’t seen in years, pulling into the alley and stopping to speak with a couple of suspicious men standing behind a condemned building.

The next week he invited Rick over for drinks and the three of them sat in  the den sipping cocktails around the big screen tv. Crown Royal for the gentlemen. Alize for the lady.

At first, Tasha and Rick had both seemed confident that their secret was safe. They even told little jokes at his expense. But as the night wore on, they kept stealing glances at one another. Nervous. He’d told them he was going to make a big announcement.

Finally, he was ready.

“After all of this time,” he said, “I’ve finally figured out what I’m’ going to spend the money on,” he said.

Tasha and Rick both breathed sighs of relief.

“What’s that, man?” Rick said.

“Yeah, baby. C’mon, tell us,” Tasha said, “What does the man that has everything need?”

“Lawyers,” he said, drawing the Saturday Night Special from where he’d tucked it in the couch cushions.


A Day’s Work

“Thieves,” Officer Summers said, “are generally lazy.”

I wrote this down in my notepad. It was my first day on the job, and I wanted to make a good impression.

“Take that car over there, for example” he said, pointing to a late-model black Audi in the rear of the Pacific Place parking garage. We sat in an unmarked car about ten spaces away. “How much would you guess it cost?”

“Maybe fifty thousand?” I said.

“Try seventy,” he said. “And that’s just the sticker price. Look at it.”

I looked at it.

“Options,” he continued. “Sports package. Rims. Inlays on the dash. And did you happen to see the owner?”

“That blonde lady in the pencil skirt,” I said, showing off my observational skills a bit. Shoppers had been streaming by all afternoon. “She’s been carrying bags down to the trunk for the past two hours.”

“That’s right. Barneys. Kate Spade. Coach. Probably two grand worth of stuff in there. Quite the mother lode.”

“Well, that’s why we’re down here watching it,” I said.

He sighed.

“Wrong. We’re watching that car over there. That’s the one somebody’s going to try to hit.”

He pointed to a dented gray Honda a few spaces away. Patches of rust bubbled the paint job near the door jambs. A decal in the rear window assured us the owner was both thirty, and flirty.

“That one?” I said. “Why that one?”

“Because the bags in the Audi are in the trunk, out of sight. The Honda has a couple of tote bags visible in the back seat. It’s penny-ante stuff, but it’s the easy target. And thieves?” he prompted.

“Are lazy,” I said.

“You got it. Any guesses as to what’s in the tote bags?”

I shrugged.

“Somebody’s gym laundry, most likely,” he said.

And as he said it, a guy walked down the ramp from the 6th Avenue entrance. White guy, baggy jeans, and long hair under a grease-stained Mariners hat. Sunken cheeks. Real skinny.

He walked along the line of cars for a few seconds, did a double take at the Honda, and let a crowbar slide down from his sleeve, moving quick.

He’d already done the smash and grab and was heading to the exit with the bags by the time we got there and cuffed him.

I read the guy his rights and searched him. He had needles on him, but no junk. The streets were running dry, and people were getting desperate.

Summers looked in the tote bags. He jabbed his pen into one and dredged up a neon pink sports bra, still damp with sweat. Just like he’d said.

I was impressed, and I told him so.

“You’ll learn,” he said.

It was quitting time back at the station after we got through processing and logged the crowbar into evidence.

Summers turned the key to the evidence locker and we walked to the rear exit together.

“Another day, another dollar,” I said.

“Minus taxes,” said Summers.

A half-frozen slushy rain had started falling. We put on our jackets. I still wasn’t used to the uniform. The shirt was tight around the collar because they didn’t have my size, and the jacket was a little short in the sleeves.

The pants were a size too big, but that’s because I had requested them that way. The loose fabric did a decent job of concealing the ziplocks of pure heroin powder I’d pocketed in the evidence locker.

We walked out to the parking lot together.

“Be sure to look over those notes you took,” he said, getting into his car.

I assured him I would, but of course I wouldn’t. He started his car and pulled away. I gave a little wave with the notebook.

I was tired.

It had taken me two tries to pass the written exam. Then six long months in the police academy. Not to mention the year I spent studying every frame of that damn sleight of hand DVD.

I was tired, but I wasn’t going to sleep. I had to stay up all night cutting the junk and bagging it. Then I had to meet my buyer and catch my flight, all before eight the next morning.

Thieves are lazy?

Maybe the ones he catches are.


Two Girls

Three seconds was all it took. Push, slip, fall then a haphazard tumble down the wooden stairs the teachers’ quarters were known for, before Ms. Adebisi’s body rolled to a stop at the bottom, lifeless. How long did they stand there, eyes bulging out of their sockets, the horror before them not registering?

The first girl recovered first and tugged at the second girl who still stood there, staring at the blood pooling like congealed stew at the foot of the stairs, draining Ms. Adebisi, their Integrated Science teacher, of every atom of life left. From her, they had learned about epinephrine, the chemical that instigates flight or fight.

They chose flight, rushing down the stairs, their shoes knocking against the wood, careful not to step in the pool of blood, not to leave any trail. The first girl was faster, stealthier as if she had done this before. The second girl not so much.

 Her legs shook, her hands vibrated, her heart thudded, her future wavered before her eyes. A college education in the United States. A job with a topnotch company in Texas. Or New York. A future of promise. Three seconds could take that away. An accident.

Was it really an accident?” The thought jumped to the forefront of the second girl’s mind as she and the first girl came to a stop in front of their dorm, their chests heaving.

“Do you think someone saw us?” the first girl asked, seeking confirmation, her eyes darting all over as if searching for accusing figures. The second girl was slow to respond. Worry was potent, but it was gradually metamorphosing into guilt. She marveled that the first girl was still in the realm of worry.

Had it really being an accident?” The second girl wondered again, suspicious. The first girl was known for her rage and the second girl had seen it multiple times. Once when a boy touched the first girl’s buttocks. Another instance when someone mocked the first girl for her brashness, telling her to learn from Ms. Adebisi, to adopt her femininity and gracefulness.

Perhaps, Ms. Adebisi had set off a ticking bomb when she called the first girl that word. Uncouth. A statement preceded by a slap across the first girl’s face when the first girl called Ms. Adebisi a whore for sleeping with a student, the second girl’s crush.

Later, as news of Ms. Adebisi’s death carries through the walls of classrooms, through the heat-infused air of the assembly hall, as policemen careen in and out of the boarding school in their cars, as the second girl tries to expel Ms. Adebisi’s flowery scent from her clothes, she thinks of the boy who drove them to Ms. Adebisi’s place, the boy with the magnetic personality and alluring eyes, and wonders if he was worth it, if the walls will cave in on her and the first girl, if they will be caught eventually and exposed to the whole school as murderers.


Millicent

“Who is Millicent?”

“It’s not a who. Millicent is a cryptocurrency. You know, like Bitcoin.”

Dr. Abrams tented his fingers and pressed them to his lips. “Fake money.”

“That’s what I thought. Years ago, I did a favor for a friend. No need to go into any detail on that. As a thank you, this friend gave me six thousand Millicents. I thought it was a gag. But you know what they’re worth today? More than fifty million dollars.”

Dr. Abrams whistled. “But you’ve…lost them?”

“I didn’t lose them. They’re in a digital wallet that’s password protected. Only problem is, back when my friend gave it to me, I didn’t take it very seriously. So I can’t remember the password. I only get ten tries to open this wallet before it seals shut forever, and I’ve already used eight of them.”

“And that’s why you’ve come to me.”

“How does it work? You swing a gold watch in front of my eyes?”

“Only in the movies. I use a technique called visualization. If you’re ready, we can try it now.”

The client scowled. “Not so fast. Explain it to me.”

“I understand. You’re worried I’ll make you cluck like a chicken in the middle of an important business meeting.”

“That’s not what I’m worried about.”

“Right. There’s a lot of money at stake, and you don’t trust me. You think I could lift the password from your subconscious and use it to steal your millions. But of course, I don’t have access to this digital wallet, so there’s really no danger of that.”

The client smiled with no warmth. He looked familiar to Dr. Abrams, like a character actor best known for bit parts in Martin Scorsese movies. “So how does it work? This visualization?”

“Picture a room that’s very familiar to you. A room full of memories, both good and bad. Think of all the little details that make up this room. Pictures on the wall. Imperfections, like an uneven table or a flickering light. As many details as you can remember, then think of five more.”

Dr. Abrams saw that his client had closed his eyes. His body was relaxed.

“One by one,” Dr. Abrams continued, “I want you to remove the bad memories from this room. Keep going until only the good memories remain. When all of the bad memories are gone, look down at your feet. You’ll see a discarded matchbook. Pick it up and open it. The password is written inside.”

***

An hour later, working on his third celebratory martini at Emilio’s, Francis Vicenti called Joey Onions.

“I gotta thank you, my friend,” said Vicenti. “The fucking hypnotist, it worked. I’ve got the password and now I’ll never forget it.”

“See, I told you it was no bullshit. I never woulda been able to quit smoking without Doc Abrams. So when do we discuss my finder’s fee?”

Vicenti laughed. “Come down to Emilio’s and I’ll buy you dinner. This is the room I pictured for my visualization. Only good memories in here for me now.”

“Well, you’re about to have a bad one. See, I’m at your house right now. Your wife was kind enough to show me into your office and sign me into your laptop. Don’t worry, she’s fine. She’ll be coming with me when I leave, and you’ll never see either of us again.”

Vicenti laughed even harder. “You’re a funny guy, Joey. Seriously, come down, we’ll have some clams.”

“I got your digital wallet open right here. I tried to guess the password, just for shits and giggles. Got it wrong, so now you’re down to only one attempt before it closes shut forever. Should I guess again?”

“Fuck you, Joey. I’m not laughing no more.”

“Give me the password, Frankie. I won’t take it all. I’ll leave you, what, a million? That’s fair, right?”

“I’ll fucking kill you.”

“Okay, I’ll leave you half a million. You got ten seconds, Frankie.”

“You’re bluffing.”

“Five seconds.”

***

Joey Onions ended up leaving Francis Vicenti one Millicent. It was worth $166.67, not quite enough to cover his session with Dr. Abrams, whose body was found in the East River a week later.


Dollar on Pump Four

I don’t see the dog till I clip it with my bumper and flip it into the scrub.

“Fuck!” I stomp the brake and fishtail into the shoulder, my heart a knocking bass line.

Peering back through the dust cloud, I search for movement, but there’s none. No houses on this stretch, just the DollarMart, closed till nine, and the overpass where the dopers and tweakers camp. Half mile down is the QuikFill, where I’m already late for work because my body hates the early shift and leaving Angel behind in bed.

No one on the road. So, probably a coyote, but still. Fuck.

***

I’m making coffee in the big urn when a rough-looking regular comes in. Usually, it’s a dollar on pump four dispensed into a red plastic jug—for what, huffing, maybe. Today, no gas, but he tongs a chocolate donut with sprinkles out of the case, drops it on a napkin, and leaves a wadded dollar by the register. Coffee’s about ready on the tip of my tongue, when he pulls a knife and shows it to me. Not a box-cutter; a knife you’d steak-out an elk with.

“What the shit?” I say at the same time he says, “Gimme the gun.” A voice like flat tires on a fire road.

“There’s no gun,” I try, but he says, “Every gas station in this state has a gun.”

I put down the carafe and go behind the counter where I keep a little Ruger .22 for emergencies. Five seconds ago it became obsolete when we both learned I’m no hero. He motions for it, and I hand it over.

“Take anything you want, man,” I say, wondering if he’ll let me at least write Angel a goodbye before he puts a bullet in my face. But he drops the gun into his pocket and takes the donut to go. I stand there, deciding: call the cops and report my gun—took off Angel’s brother in a card game—stolen, or just wonder if it’s my piece every time there’s a crackhead 211 in town?

A single gunshot outside drops me to my knees. There’s a howling sob, like a shot man might make. Next, shattering glass, like a rock through a car window. Being that my car is the only one in the lot, I jump the counter, press my face to the glass behind the Doral window cling, and see he’s sitting on the curb, hunched over something like a sack of laundry.

I run out, reckless mad, thinking if he was gonna shoot me he would’ve already. “My fucking window!” I circle around front of him, safety glass crunching under my heels with a sound like someone chewing ice. Guess who’s gonna clean all this up? Me. Insult to injury.

He looks up with a face crumpled and set like bootprints in dried mud.

I don’t see the gun anywhere, but I do see what he’s holding isn’t laundry at all. A dusty brown dog, rear legs bent wrong, like broken, like from being hit with a car. I don’t want to see, but I do, the little dark hole high on the back of its head, between the ears. I see its gray muzzle and its tongue hanging out, little bit of blood on it. The thing I wish I didn’t see, will not stop seeing, is the yellow sprinkles from its last meal of Dot’s donut stuck to its pink-black gums.

Guy gets up with the dog in his arms, doesn’t say a word, and shuffles off down the road, back to the overpass or wherever. It’s like there’s a fist in my chest, squeezing something vital. I want to yell after them, I’m sorry! But I can’t.

So, I go inside for the broom and dustpan from the janitor’s closet, wondering how long before he’s back, using my piece to get free beer for life, or revenge. I broom up a pile of glass, dump it in the trash. Open my car door next to brush glass off the cigarette-burned seat, and there’s the Ruger on the floor mat, where it landed.


Bonnie and Clive

Bonnie saw Clive for the first time in seven years at an illegal get-together outside Killington. No masks—a good thing, or she wouldn’t have recognized him. She hadn’t seen Clive since her sister’s wedding.

Bonnie had a hazy recollection of making out with Clive after the reception.

Later that afternoon, she was in a pickup heading north after Clive had offered her a ride home.

“All this natural beauty,” Clive said. It was stick season, and the leaves were down. “But it feels like the bottom’s fallen out.”

“I got almost no income,” Bonnie said. “I had things patched together with part-time jobs. Not anymore, thanks to the lockdown.”

Clive said, “I’m back in Vermont living in my parent’s basement.”

Bonnie said, “Got anything lined up?”

“Not specifically,” Clive said. “I’m trying to be open to all possibilities, expand my—” He made a motion with his hand.

“Range,” Bonnie said.

“Exactly,” he said. “It’s about money. So I ask myself, Where is the money?”

Bonnie said, “In banks. With my car.”

“Well, yeah.”

Clive glanced at her. “Now, take you,” he said. “Good looking, only twenty-six—”

“Barely two hours and you wanna pimp me?”

“I didn’t mean that,” Clive said. “Just exploring the possibilities.”

Bonnie said, “At some point, every woman wonders if she could make a living selling her body.”

“There’s the sugar daddy route,” Clive said. “Find a refined older gent with dough.”

“In Vermont?”

He drummed his fingers on the wheel.

Clive said, “Okay, let’s look at the typical set up. Hypothetically, of course. A partnership with someone who does the marketing, vets the clients, provides security.”

“For fifty percent,” Bonnie said. “All I do is drop my drawers. And get the clap.”

“Maybe not,” Clive said.

“I have a question,” Bonnie said. “When there’s a client who’s into guys, will the hypothetical partner take it up the ass? And split fifty-fifty?”

“I got another idea,” Clive said.

He opened the center console and handed Bonnie a revolver.

“A thirty-eight?” she said.

“Yep.”

“This a collector’s item you’re selling on eBay?”

“Nope.”

Up the road,  a UPS truck pulled out of a driveway.

“They’re all over the place,” Clive said. “Everybody’s shopping online.”

“Are you stealing shit off porches?” Bonnie said.

“The key is getting rid of the stuff,” Clive said. “I know a guy.”

The delivery truck turned into the driveway of a house set back from the road. Clive pulled over and parked.

Clive took the revolver from Bonnie. “You drive. I’ll wave, you come get me.”

Bonnie said, “Fifty-fifty, right?”

Clive slid out and bushwhacked through the trees toward the house. Bonnie got out of the pickup and walked around.

Delivery done, the UPS truck pulled out and drove off.

Bonnie put her foot on the brake and started the motor. Her right hand went to the shift lever. It moved. A five-speed manual.

Bonnie thought, Fuck.

A shot came from the direction of the house.

Bonnie thought, I can drive a snow machine, a twenty-seven speed mountain bike and a four-wheeler, but not a manual transmission.

Clive was half-running through the woods toward the pickup, limping. Bonnie saw a red splotch on his left thigh.

Clive climbed in. “Hit it!”

“It’s a stick shift.”

Clive stared at her.

“Gimme the gun,” Bonnie said.

She jumped out and ran through the woods. Then two shots, seconds apart.

A couple minutes passed. Clive determined it was only a flesh wound. He wasn’t going to bleed to death.

A car started down the driveway. It pulled up in front of the pickup. Bonnie was behind the wheel and signaled Clive to get in.

He hobbled to the car. In the back was a jumble of boxes.

Clive got in and said, “You shot him?”

Bonnie said, “That fucker was between me and the money, Clive.”

She put the car in drive.

“Unlike you, I grabbed the delivery,” Bonnie said. “And the wallet. More than six hundred dollars.”

She made a U-turn and drove down the road to a stop sign.

Bonnie said, “Which way you think that truck turned?”


Write On Me, Sam

The motel’s feable forty-watt bulbs cast her flesh in an orange and ghostly light. Sam hadn’t been this close to a woman in a long time. His nervousness surprised him. The place smelled of mildew and lilac, an odd combination, but not wholly unappealing. His ballpoint pen wobbled against her stomach. Her black hair fanned out on the ivory pillows, while she sprawled on the bed and stared down her nose at his handiwork.

The woman, who told him to call her Annie, contacted him through Craigslist where he sold his “handyman” services, but she didn’t want those. She’d remembered him from his past life, from a news article, in fact, that she kept framed. Sam wrote it five years back, when in good standing with the Chronicle, on a local Italian gangster arrested for murder. A few murders actually. Lawyers cited the story, which covered the arrest, at the man’s trial. Sam couldn’t place the lady, however, but maybe she’d been involved. She looked familiar. Relative of one of his victims? A TV news reporter?

Sam got “Journalist of the Year” for his work on the Carmine Francesco case. What he didn’t get was a raise. And that damn award didn’t save him from the budget cuts.

Their emails were brief. Meet on Union Street at one of the seedy motels sprinkled about San Francisco, write that award-winning story in ballpoint on her golden body, and done. She wanted to see his words on her flesh. Annie agreed to his two-thousand-dollar price tag. Paid up front. No bodyguard duty, no assault-for-hire, nothing but an evening with a beautiful woman. Maybe he’d break into the escort business and leave the hired thug biz behind. Thought made him smirk. He’d kissed flying fists too often for that shit.

Sam admired her bare flesh, his pen pausing for the briefest of moments. He’d stripped off most of his own clothes and wore only a pair of black boxers. She smiled at him with her candy apple red lips, black eyes stormy with passion. Arms above her head. Hands beneath the downy white pillows.

“I can barely keep the pen straight. Fucking turned on, Annie.”

She purred. “Write on me, Sam. Reward after.”

Next line, he told himself, ignore the tits and ass. Earn the money.

Francesco, a married father of two, faces a life sentence if convicted.

He stopped. Married… Shit. The wife. Knew he’d seen her somewhere.

Sam felt her body tense a half second before her hands swung out from under the pillow. He pulled away and rolled off the bed. A blade sliced into his cheek. Got a glimpse of the thing as he bailed. Stiletto tactical knife. Fucking Mafia blade. Kept under the pillow. Oldest trick in the book.

Annie lunged after him, attempting to keep him off balance. Not Annie, he remembered now, Anna. Anna fucking Francesco.

Sam gripped the pen, easily dodging her next swipe, and plunged the ballpoint into her right shoulder. It went in halfway before she twisted sideways, screaming, and careened into a dresser. Her ribs banged against the wood, and she hit the floor. The stiletto flew from her hand under the bed, but the ballpoint stayed in the meat.

Sam knelt by her head. Anna’s eyes fluttered. Conscious, but not moving. The lady knew she’d been beat.

“A revenge kill? You even care that Carmine was fucking around on you? I got it from the detectives, saw the surveillance photos. Man had more lovers than Pepe Le Pew.”

Her eyes narrowed. Sam went on. “Be glad I chose not to include that in my stories, Annie.”

He plucked the pen from her shoulder with a slurping noise. The shock and pain caused her dark eyes to roll up inside her head. In blood and ink, he wrote a final inscription on her bare stomach. Blood trailed from the wound over her breasts and dribbled down her arm. He’d be long gone when she came to. With luck she’d pay attention to his parting words.

Come after me again and I’ll fucking kill everyone you love.

So much for romance.


Parting Gifts

It was dark when I got home and parked the car on the patch of gravel in the front yard. I could see my boys sitting on the couch, each one playing on their separate tablets, their heads leaned forward, long black hair loose and messy. As soon as I parked, I pulled out my nearly empty pack of cigarettes, even though I saw my oldest boy standing up and looking outside. I lit the cigarette anyway.

Mr. Warren had kept me at work late talking. In another ten years, I might settle for a man like my older boss, but I wasn’t ready to marry someone who did nothing for me below the belt. I was tired and anxious and not in a mood to talk. But he liked me and he was kind and unmarried and as long as I sat and listened, I didn’t have to clock out.

Me and the boys had spent the long weekend at my mom’s house helping her sort through my dead father’s belongings. I half wondered if the boy’s dad, was trying to sneak back into our lives. He’d asked if he could stay at our house while we were away because he was having his apartment sprayed for bugs and when we got home late Sunday night the front room and kitchen were cleaner than when we had moved in. A rented carpet cleaner sat in the back of his truck and he was gone to return it to the Winn Dixie before I’d even been able to manage a shocked “thank you.” Today, though, he had texted and asked if he could bring me and the boys dinner seeing as he thought he forgotten something important at the house, anyway. I’d ignored his text until finally he’d said he’d come by after the boys went to bed and maybe we could talk. I was pretty pissed that he was breaking one of my rules about visiting, but he ignored my response to that.

I pinched out the cigarette and leaned over to open the passenger side door. It wasn’t that Edward didn’t know I smoked, but I had promised myself I wouldn’t smoke around my kids. In fact, I only ever smoked in the car alone, anymore. That was another one of my rules. Me and the boys had a lot of them. Rules kept CPS from coming to the door, kept Eddie and his little brother John safe, kept me from taking their broken father back, as if living with him wouldn’t eventually turn back into raising another kid and be 1000 times worse than secondhand smoke. If Edward was coming out of the house before I finished my driveway smoke, what he had to say wasn’t going to be good.

My heart started to pound in my ears. I rolled up the windows and turned on the air conditioner to pull the smoke out of the car.

Eddie sat down in the passenger seat and stared ahead, his hands in the black jacket his father had left behind. It was too big for him and the jacket had been too small for his father the last time he’d left. It was one of the few things John, Sr. hadn’t taken with him, figured he’d only left it behind because it was one more thing he’d decided he needed in his life less than he needed drugs and high times, less than he wanted me and the boys.

“Well?” I said. I turned and looked at him. I was trying to be patient, but I was feeling that unfinished smoke.

“We got ice cream today,” Ed said.

“You break into the laundromat money?” I teased, half serious, though.

He shook his head. “No,” he said. “We went fishing for change. I found a magnet when we were walking home from school. I tied it to a string to get those coins out of the furnace.”

The gas floor furnace with its gridded metal cover didn’t work anymore. The landlord had told me that when it turned cold, we’d need some space heaters. The land the house was on had once been part of a Cherokee allotment just outside of Snake, Oklahoma, and had only, recently been returned to Cherokee jurisdiction, legally. For years I’d been telling people the Cherokee didn’t have a Reservation, it was all allotted land, and then one morning I woke up in a white man’s rent house on a Reservation in Oklahoma, an Indian on land that was once more, legally, Indian land.

“Anyway,” Eddie continued, “I was letting John use it to fish for coins in the couch and it got caught. So, Johnny reached into the couch, and,” he paused and pulled a plastic produce bag from his pocket and held it out to me, “he found this.”

I took the wadded up plastic bag from him. It felt like it was wrapped around a baby carrot.

I started to unroll it and Eddie said, “Don’t open it, Mom. It smells.”

I flattened the bag out across my lap and looked at the last two knuckles of a bloody finger.

“Well, hell,” I said.

“I told Junior it wasn’t real.”

I nodded.

“Pretty sure it is, though.”

“I’m pretty sure you’re right.” I felt a little queasy and I rolled down the window. “Open the glove compartment,” I said.

Edward did. I tossed the bag in and he closed it quickly.

“Why do you think there was a piece of a finger in our couch, mom?”

I thought of the texts from his dad, a guy I’d known most of my life, and I shrugged.

“I’m gonna need a smoke, Eddie.”

Eddie nodded.

“So, I’m either going to have to break my rule or you’re going to have to go back in the house.”

Eddie nodded. He opened the car door and got out slowly. But then he sat back down and pulled the door shut. He reached over and rolled down his window.

I lit the cigarette and blew hard away from the car. I was thinking about the black light their dad had left behind along with his metal band posters and the jacket Edward was wearing. I wondered what I was going to find in the dark of the living room when the boys went to bed. I doubted a finger was all my ex-husband left behind.


Humble Beginnings

“You right-handed or left-handed?” He looks to me, up from the chair he’s bound to. The wood is mahogany—old, thick, and matching the desk I’m leaning against. Stout juts his chin to the right, the sweat dripping from his goatee adding to dampness already home to his crotch.

I cut the zip tie that binds his right hand to the chair.

“And you?” I say, turning my attention to the other piece of shit, McDonough. The thicker man looks to his right hand as well, but as he does, Ray re-enters the office. Like me, he’s still wearing the Kevlar. Unlike me, he comes bearing gifts: a gas can in each of his gloved hands.

“I see you’ve started without me,” in a way I had, but not how one might think. I’m young here, no longer part of the CCPD, and at a time in my life where failure and I had yet to fuck one another. It meant Jeramiah was still years into the future, Batista still retained the parts of his face he’d eventually lose, and Ray, well Ray was still six feet instead of five.

“Just awaiting your return,” I say, and feel the metal hit the desk.

Ray sucks his teeth, “That’s why these two are going to love you, Bishop. You’re inclusive in what you do, never failing to leave anyone out of the process.” He’s fucking with them now, and the show, it wasn’t new. It’s how Ray’s always been, war, post-war, or otherwise.

I finish my business with McDonough, freeing the hand he’d motioned to. We’re in the man’s own office, surrounded by pin-up posters, a couple of filing cabinets topped with liquor bottles, and a small beige couch that had seen better days. Through venetian blinds to the right of Stout I take in Culver Bay, the docks, and the purple sky above them both. A storm was coming. For some, it was already here.

“Each of you are going to list as many people as you can. Men who could sit in those very chairs and I’d have a hard time spotting the difference.” I had their attention. Of course I did. It’s the way this game was played. Home to a set of rules I’d been forced to understand.

“Whoever gives me the highest number of shitbirds, you are the one who walks.  Not forever. Just today. Until Ray and I here come looking for you again.” If they were smart, they’d picture using that time to either come at me themselves or hightailing it the fuck out of Dodge.

It’s what the man in front of them hoped they’d believe, anyway.

I hand them pens and clipboards.

They write. Stout faster than McDonough. This surprises me, even though it shouldn’t have. Not because human trafficking is a billion-dollar industry but because dirty cops have always been a beast all their own.

Goatee still dripping, Stout gestures through the gag. “You sure?” He nods. I take the clipboard. Read it. Look to McDonough. “You need more time?” He shakes his head, his eyes like O’s, and then he begins to openly weep. I nod to Ray. 

From the small duffel he removes goggles and places them on the bald man’s head, taking and then handing me the clipboard in the process.

“You’re thinking ‘why the goggles’, am I right?” And Ray, as he likes to do when we get to this part, he hunkers down and places his hands upon McDonough’s knees. “It’s because feeling what’s about to occur is only half of what people like you deserve. You need to see.”

Protests comes next—a type of pleading from both men, the kind that each of them would withhold from others without a thought.

Did it change things? Would it?

No. And then McDonough is drowning in fuel, his clothes hungry for the liquid. Ray empties the can, shakes it, then switches it for the full one. He sets it a few feet in front of the man. My turn. I push Stout closer to that gas can, ensuring he would accept the full brunt of what was to come. 

Neither was ever leaving this office alive, no matter how much they wanted to believe in what I told them. Part of them probably knew that, but still, I’d never ask.

I’d lost my mother. I’d lost my sister. I’d one day lose a leg. But here now, back at the start, I was not yet the monster I needed to become.

The fire spreads fast, the explosion coming faster. From the passenger seat of the van, I pull the names from the clipboards—names I did not have at the start of the day.  Ray smiles. I nod.

Time to go to work.


Girth

“I know, I know.” He squeezed his eyes shut as his wife raged. “I’m doing my best. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

Julie was livid, and he couldn’t blame her. He wasn’t exactly excited to be working his way through a list of seedy adult stores instead of being at Piglet’s fifth birthday party, but they both knew what they signed up for.

Detective Krohn hung up and stepped from his tidy white sedan. He pulled a blue handkerchief from his back pocket as he navigated the cigarette butts and loogies. The door to the Pleasure Chest was light, bulletproof plastic crudely blacked out with garbage bags. Krohn used the handkerchief to push it open and was greeted with the smell of silicone and an expanse of chipped yellowing linoleum, the same as in Kink Castle and Dirty Little Secrets, and the shop before that.

What a colossal waste of time.

But the Captain was sick of calls from orthodontists and school board members complaining their delicate suburban housewives had been subjected to mailboxes stuffed with porn, so here he was. Face to face with a rack of lube.

Two gangly young men lounged behind the counter, all legs and floppy hair. Neither looked old enough to belly up to a bar. Krohn strolled up and gave his spiel, expecting the shrugs he had been getting all day.

“What magazines were they?” the blond clerk asked. His nametag said Joey.

Krohn flipped through his notebook. This was ridiculous. He should be eating sickly sweet pink cake right now.

He read off the first few titles. The pimply-faced clerks exchanged a look.

“Girth? You sure?” Joey croaked.

What did these pricks think he was doing, making shit up? He wasn’t even convinced half of these names were real, it was like some sick joke the Captain was playing on him.

“Well…” the second clerk, a little taller and clad in a punk rock t-shirt, looked down at his hightops.

“Well?” Krohn’s patience was thin.

Joey filled the silence. “Well, the only person who buys Girth is Miss Nancy. We special order it.”

“Yeah,” Punk Rock confirmed without looking up. “That’s one she buys for her students.”

Sunday afternoon, Krohn was back in his sedan, listening to RadioLab and munching charcuterie Julie had packed, when a tiny figure in a lilac shift appeared from behind the Pleasure Chest. The small purse hanging from her frail wrist, her short gloves and pillbox hat all matched. She reminded Krohn of his grandmother.

As the pensioner approached, the door opened and Punk Rock appeared, playing doorman. He looked around like he thought he was Secret Fucking Squirrel or something and found Krohn’s eye, nodded.

Miss Nancy (Nancy Clayden, age 92, of 618 Deerfield Place, as it turned out) looked somehow smaller sitting in the orange plastic chair, hands folded in her lap. Her tiny black MaryJanes reached nowhere near the floor.

Krohn followed Officer Davide as he slowly lumbered in, clearly uncomfortable with the situation. Finally something the two could agree on.

“Title 18, Section 1725 states any person who knowingly deposits mailable matter in an established letterbox shall be subject to a fine,” Davide mumbled.

Miss Nancy reached for her purse. “Oh that’s not a problem. How much?”

Krohn and Davide exchanged a wary look and sat.

“Before we get to all that,” Krohn said, “why don’t you tell us about the … magazines.”

Miss Nancy nodded. “What would you like to know, dear?”

Krohn felt his mind go blank. He cleared his throat. What could there possibly be to know about a little old lady walking through upscale neighborhoods, stuffing mailboxes with obscure pornography?

“How did you pick the houses?” Davide finally asked.

“The ones where my students live,” Miss Nancy said as though it were plain as the table between them.

“What sort of students?” Davide leaned forward.

“Mostly the repressed wife sort. Married too young, no clue about this or that.” She matched Davide’s lean with one of her own. “I’m the Sex Ed Granny.”

Later, Krohn would swear she winked. Seeing the headlines would serve the Captain right, sending him off researching smut on Piglet’s birthday.


Mississippi Blue 42

Looking down on her former boyfriend lying face up in the middle of the road, Ella May Pride was thinking about her daddy and the men that would come for him, probably tonight, all because Matt Talley saw Brett Favre in the back corner of the endzone. Like he’d seen Jesus or something.

That’s basically what he’d told her on the drive over, Matt sitting in the backseat with his knees scrunched up, hugging himself as he said, “I don’t care what you think, Ella May. It was worth it. You know what Mr. Favre said to me? Mississippi Blue 42.” Sounded to Ella May like something Favre would’ve said before he sent those dick pics to that cheerleader and came back from retirement one too many times, or maybe the old gunslinger was just drunk. The way Matt kept whispering it, under his breath, after every single tequila shot—“Mississippi Blue 42”—Ella May knew what she had to do.

Her daddy knew it too. That’s why he’d flashed his Ford truck’s high beams right before Ella May followed Matt into The Bear Trap. Eddie didn’t say anything to his daughter when she walked up to his driver-side window. Just handed her the red bag, a look in his eyes Ella May had never seen before.

By the time Ella May took Matt up to the college bar’s second-story loft to have a talk with UCM’s star running back, Cergile Blanc, her boyfriend was loaded. Barely able to make it up the steps. Marcus McCloud was up there, too, looking at her all googly-eyed, the same way he always looked at her after that one night at the Hampton Inn.

Cerge told Marcus he had to talk business and took the couple up to the roof, leaving the backup QB behind. Soon as they got up there, Cerge snatched the gym bag off Ella May’s arm, just like she wanted him to, waving it in his quarterback’s face, shouting, “You trying to fuck me out my money, Mathew?”

All those tequila shots on an empty stomach, Matt was white-girl wasted, swaying around, unable to answer Cerge’s question. A breeze picked up from the west and blew back Matt’s frat-boy hairdo. Ella May was staring at her boyfriend’s freakishly white forehead, guessing it had something to do with his bangs, or maybe his helmet, when Cerge threw the gym bag off The Bear Trap’s roof.

Matt stumbled over close to the ledge, rising up on his tiptoes as hundred dollar bills floated through the night. Ella May stayed back, watching him, remembering the sad look in her daddy’s eyes. She gave Cerge a second or two, hoping maybe he’d man up and do the heavy lifting for her.

Cerge said, “You got something to say to me, girl?”

Ella May didn’t say anything. She just stepped forward and pushed Matt off the roof. He was so tall, she had to put her hands on his ass, one under each cheek, and use her legs to get him going.

And then it was over, at least that part of it. Ella May could feel Cerge still standing beside her, craning his neck and pointing down at the street as he said, “You pushed his ass off the roof.”

Two blocks away a siren wailed.

“You pushed his ass off the—”

Before Cerge could say that same line again, Ella May turned and started scrambling for the stairwell door, feeling the wild rush a quarterback must get when a blitz is on and he takes off for his life, imagining the way Matt must have felt when he saw Brett Favre standing in the back of that end zone with the game—and all her daddy’s money—on the line.

Ella May blinked and she was down the steps, realizing she’d forgotten all about Matt’s backup, Marcus McCloud. She could see him through the cloudy window in the stairwell door. She could hear Cerge shouting something in Haitian Creole behind her. Pushing the door open, running for Marcus, tears in her eyes, Ella May didn’t say a word to her former boyfriend’s replacement. She didn’t have to.